Friday, May 27, 2011


            When Tim and I participated in the 2003 Oak Island Garden Tour, the brochure touted our “…mastery of…vertical space.” We hadn’t really given it much thought, but I guess dubbing us masters of verticality is apt, mainly because our small lot limits the amount of space available for planting. We compensate by utilizing the space above the ground.

            In the corners of the back garden’s enclosing hedge of dwarf yaupon hollies, we set 4x4” pressure-treated posts wrapped bottom-to-top in chicken wire upon which I optimistically planned to grow lush clematis, รก la Longwood Gardens. (F.Y.I.: Longwood is in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, not too far west of Philadelphia. It’s one of my very favorite public gardens. Do go see it whenever you venture north of the Mason-Dixon. Other worthwhile public gardens in the Philly area include Chanticleer, the Morris Arboretum and Winterthur.) Little did I guess at the time the frustration that awaited me. I did know, however, that clematis take a few years to settle in—like about a hundred, in my case—so I planted annual vines on the posts for visual interest until the clematis kicked in. That was in 1998. As the years passed and clematis after clematis bellied-up, those filler vines, with their royal purple seed pods, or tiny Chinese lanterns hiding dark brown seeds with perfect white hearts painted on each, or masses of the cheerfulest little brown-eyed yellow flowers you’d ever want to see, became important garden choices in their own right. Entranced by their ease of culture and the huge number of choices available to try, I rejoiced in the fact they’re annual and supposed to die every year.

Love-in-a-puff seeds
Here’s an annotated list of the ones that succeeded best for me.

♥ Cardiospermum halicacabrum (Love-in-a-puff) The common name’s a lot easier to say, isn’t it? Delicate, finely cut light-green foliage mostly hides the miniscule white flowers; but the seed pods are the Chinese lanterns I referred to above, three seeds per pod, white heart on each seed. Thrill a child and let him break some open.

Blue pea vine bloom

♥ Clitoria ternatea (Blue pea vine) Stop tittering. The genus-name—which, by the way, nobody ever mispronounces—is unfortunate (however descriptive), and the common name’s not much better. How about blue butterfly vine? Anyway, whatever you call it, this four-to-five-foot-high scandent (meaning lax in habit, a plant that leans against its support rather than actively climbing it) plant boasts the most beautiful, royal blue pea-like flowers you’d ever hope to see. It’s love at first sight, whatever you call it.

♥ Dolichos lablab or Lablab purpureus (Caution: taxonomic turf war in progress) (Hyacinth-bean vine) Everything about this plant impresses: coarse-textured dark green leaves flash purple veins and stems; fragrant purple-and-white racemes of pea-like flowers in mid- to late summer are followed by amazing, four to six-inch long in-your-face purple edible seed pods that persist long into the fall. Butterflies and hummingbirds will be as mesmerized as you are.

♥ Ipomoea alba (Moonflower) First, some pronunciation practice: don’t reduce this botanical name to a mumble in your mind. We have six of them, so learn to pronounce it now: eye-poe-MEE-uh. (For future reference, whenever any other vowel immediately precedes an e in Latin, it seems you pretend the non-e vowel isn’t there, Ipom[o]ea being a case in point.) Now, back to moonflowers. To best enjoy the lusciously fragrant flowers, plant this one where you can smell it in the evenings, when the five-to-six-inch-wide pure white flowers open beginning in mid-summer. Heaven! They also draw hawk moths and Carolina sphinxes like magnets.

♥ Ipomoea batatas (Ornamental sweet potato vine) Available in chartreuse (‘Margarita’), purple-black (‘Blackie’), tricolor (‘Variegata’) and many other variations. Despite their lack of showy flowers, most people—including me—grow these to drape and cascade out of containers. It occurs to me as I write this that you could probably train them to go up as well. Matter of fact, I’m may try it sometime. If you live in an area without deer pressure, be sure to give them lots of space. One May, Tim and I put two one-gallon ‘Margarita’ in a four-by-four-foot raised bed at our dentist's office: by July, the parking lot was disappearing under waves of chartreuse foliage. When removing the plants in November, we pulled out a wheelbarrow-load of potatoes, some as large as footballs (and just as tasty). A warning—if you live in an area where edible sweet potatoes are grown, use something else: farmers live in fear of sweet potato virus, and I. batatas can carry it.

Exotic love vine

♥ Ipomoea lobata (Exotic love vine) One of my few successes with seed-starting, I. lobata started out slow. By August, however—Oh. My. God. The profuse scarlet, yellow and white flowers don’t resemble any other morning-glory relative you’ve ever seen. Three scraggly seedlings turned my mailbox into a waterfall of exotic something from midsummer to frost.

Cardinal climber

♥ Ipomoea x multifida, a.k.a. I. x sloteri (Cardinal climber) Small palmate mid-green leaves are deeply divided into three to seven lobes and interspersed with one-inch-long tubular crimson flowers with white throats in summer. Hummingbirds love this one. Don’t eat the seeds, though (like the thought might actually occur to you): they’re poisonous.

♥ Ipomoea nil (Morning glory) The familiar and profuse saucer-shaped blooms come in white, pink, red, purple, blue and any combination of same. Be stern about how much space you allot them; morning glories have thuggish tendencies and an eye to escaping bounds. Notorious self-seeders, the seedlings are easy to transplant and/or pull out. Don’t toss discarded sprouts onto the compost pile unless you find tangles of vines attractive.

♥ Ipomoea qualmoclit (Cypress vine) This one looks very much like cardinal climber. The difference lies in its feathery foliage and its dainty red saucer-like flowers.

'Alice DuPont'

♥ Mandevilla spp.  (Ubiquitous mailbox vine—at least that’s my name for it: most people just call it mandevilla) Two hybrids generally show up in the trade: M. x amabilis and M. amoena ‘Alice DuPont.’ They have the familiar pink trumpet-shaped flowers among leathery dark green leaves. ‘Alice du Pont’ has more numerous and darker-pink blooms. Recently, ‘Crimson Parasols,’ a red-blooming cultivar, hit the market. The $64,000 question in my neighborhood is, “Can I over-winter my mandevilla?” The short, easy answer is, “Don’t bother with the pot-in-the-garage technique.” But my friend Miss P’s mailbox specimen is in its fifth lush season. After first frost, she cuts down the dead foliage to about six inches and builds a little chicken-wire cage around it. This she stuffs with fallen leaves and pine needles; then she wraps the whole thing in burlap and hopes for the best. So far, so good.

Snail vine flowers

♥ Phaseolus coccineus ‘Scarlet’ (Scarlet runner bean) To be honest, I never managed to get this one going, although a friend’s grew lushly. I was quite jealous, because not only does Phaseolus attract hummingbirds with its brilliant red blooms, it also produces edible beans. ‘Scarlet’ is designated an heirloom variety, which means it’s been in cultivation for a long, long time. There’s another ornamental Phaseolus, P. caraculla, or snail vine, producing the most awesome white and red-violet spiral flowers. Grower extraordinaire Christine gave me one on Wednesday:  it’s slated for planting on the New Bed arbor tomorrow.

Mexican flame vine

Senecio confusus (Mexican flame vine) If you love orange flowers—although there doesn’t seem to be that many of us—this eight-to-ten-foot climber is for you. From late spring to frost, daisy-like blooms up to two inches across appear in clusters against dark green, glossy foliage.

Solanum seaforthianum

♥ Solanum seaforthianum (Italian jasmine or St. Vincent’s lilac) Dark-green leaves set off the clusters of violet-blue flowers with golden yellow stamens summer into fall. This is one of my favorites, although it’s not easy to find. In fact, I haven’t found it anywhere for many years.

♥ Thunbergia alata (Black-eyed Susan vine) Hands down, this is my most indispensible annual vine—and that’s saying a lot. Medium green heart-shaped leaves become hidden by the deluge of one-inch saucer-like flowers with round brown or green dimpled centers mid-summer to frost. There’s a golden-yellow type, a butter-yellow type and a white cultivar (‘Alba’). Cloudless sulfur butterflies love it. The golden-yellow straight species is an heirloom, dating back to 1825.

Black-eyed Susan vine

Two other Thunbergia vines I tried didn't perform well for me, but don’t let that stop you from giving them a go. First is T. battescombii (glory vine), with three-inch-long royal purple blossoms with yellow throats as its claim to fame. It’s not been particularly glorious in my garden, however, despite several tries.  Next is T. grandiflora (sky vine or blue trumpet vine). Lavender-blue flowers up to three inches across, also with yellow throats, are supposed to appear in summer. I wouldn’t know. Mine died before it got that far.

I also grew an Asarina scandens ‘Joan Lorraine’ (creeping gloxinia) in a pot for a few seasons a decade or so ago. She had dainty, dark green, intricate foliage and lovely little deep purple flowers: not at all flashy, you had to get close to appreciate her beauty. But my luck runs almost as poorly with gloxinias as it does with clematis, which is a whole other sad story we’ll get to in a few weeks.

Keep in mind these are only the annual vines that have lived and died in my garden so far. There’re lots more out there, like Cobaea scandens (cup and saucer vine) and Rhodochiton atrosanguineum (purple bells). Since annual vines out-grow their pots so quickly and tangle into other things so readily, few garden centers stock much of a selection. Select Seeds catalog, which offers plants as well as seeds, is a good place to start hunting. Woodlanders Nursery’s online catalog is a source for more exotic genera.

Next time is the May Wrap-Up (good golly, Miss Molly, where is the year getting to?), followed by a riff on Perennial Vines I Have Known, to be succeeded by my sad history with the genus Clematis. Are you on the edge of your seat yet, antsy with anticipation?

Whatever. Stay cool, y’all—and I mean that literally for those of you in my immediate vicinity: summer arrived last Monday, and feels like it’s gonna be a lulu.

Thanks for dropping by.